From my very earliest memories, I had a very strong sense of a Something there watching out for me and caring about my well-being. I called it God. This was true even though I was raised by Milquetoast Methodist parents who had me baptized and then took me to church a couple of times a year, being essentially agnostics.
One day during Sunday School (I was 5), I posed my first theological question when the teacher told us to pray for good weather for an upcoming church picnic. “What it there is a farmer who is praying for rain for his crops on the same day?” I asked. The teacher thought my question was cute.
In middle school, our neighborhood had a lot of (reform) Jewish families. My best friend Bekka came from a large family that had emigrated from Israel a few years before. She and I were inseparable, and her father was a Cantor, so I spent many nights at the Synagogue and many other nights at Shabbats, mesmerized by the prayers over the candles: Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam…Amein.
I even learned to write a little Hebrew. I fell in love with Judaism – what little I could comprehend of it – and was jealous of Bekka and her family who had such a strong cultural and spiritual connection to God.
This all came to a screeching halt when an evangelical friend of mine informed me that Bekka and her family was secret Satanists because they were “Christ-killers.” I pointed out how nice they all were, and he said, “It doesn’t matter whether someone is nice. God doesn’t care about that. He only cares if you have accepted Jesus as your savior. Otherwise you go to into eternal hellfire.”
This bothered me terribly, especially since it made God worse than Hitler, whose victims at least died in the end. But I still believed in God and wanted to be on his good side. I was scared. Even after my parents pronounced him an “idiot,” I let my friendship with Bekka fade away along with my dreams of becoming Jewish.
In high school I was confirmed in a local Lutheran church. I was still uncomfortable with “saved by faith,” as my school was very diverse and I knew kids of all sorts of religions. The church had a large youth group and a “Luther Teen House” next door with a jukebox, pool table and Coke machine. I got high, got drunk, and made out for the first time all in that house. Seems the Christian girls were no less bitchy and the Christian boys no less sexually aggressive than secular kids … but they had faith in Jesus, so it was all good.
Lydia, my roommate in college, was something I’d never encountered before – a young-earth, fundamentalist Christian. In pre-med (!!!) she was convinced that dinosaur bones had been “created by Satan to fool Christians.” She had no problem with the concept of little Indian, Chinese and African children going to hell. The same applied to Catholics and other Christians who didn’t interpret the Bible literally or had been baptized as infants.
At the same time, my closest friend Daniel (who, 30 years later, is still one of my closest friends) was one of the most compassionate people I’d ever known (and he was a lot happier than Lydia, who was clinically depressed most of the time). He was also an atheist – raised that way. Again I was reminded that God only cares what you believe, not in any good works you may do. This struck me as inherently unfair, given that Daniel did nice things without any expectation of reward or fear of damnation.
This God thing was making less and less sense, but I still “felt” him … and I really didn’t want to go to hell.
Lydia was a straight-A student, but lacked real-world experience and common sense, so she was easy to debate. But each debate left me more weary and confused. I DID believe in God, and I had no way to know – could she possibly be right? I attended my own church, a liberal Lutheran one, but more and more questions started popping up. Such as:
- If Jesus were really God, how come he didn’t share some really helpful advice – like what germs are, how they spread and how to prevent disease?
- Assuming he knew the future, why didn’t Jesus make it extremely clear that events like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials would be totally unacceptable?
- How did Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross accomplish anything for us? If God needed that to forgive us, then he is less “forgiving” than we are, because WE are expected to forgive without demanding a sacrifice in return. Vengeance is not forgiveness.
- If God is unchanging and “the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” why does he no longer talk to us? Why aren’t we still making animal sacrifices? Why isn’t he still smiting people, or ordering people to be smote? (Literal number from the Bible, 2,821,364 – with estimates of 10 times that). And the very act of coming to earth as Jesus represented a new idea – doesn’t a new idea require a change?
- Why did God bother to create millions and millions of people, before and after Christ, who he knew would be damned to eternal hellfire in the end?
- If God could make miracles happen, and if we could give him credit for the small things (praise be to God I won Bingo!), why did he do nothing about the big things (providing rain to drought areas where people are dying for a drink of water?).
- If God made hell because so many people are evil, why can’t good people merit heaven with or without faith in a particular doctrine? He took all the morality away from the issue. It easier to do good things than it is to believe something that might be alien to what you’ve been taught.
- If being filled by the Holy Spirit made you into a new creation, why isn’t it plainly obvious that Christians are different (and better) than other people? It was the early 1980s and TV evangelist scandals were coming to light every day. And so often, Christians seemed to be on the wrong side of moral issues. I was a member of “Students Against Nuclear Weapons” and was informed by more than one fundamentalist that I was working against Christ because he NEEDED a nuclear holocaust in order to return. The then-popular bumper sticker, “CHRISTIANS AREN’T PERFECT, JUST FORGIVEN,” seemed like a taunt to me.
And still I “felt” him.
That summer, I got a job doing filing downtown. One afternoon I looked out the window and saw one of those Jesus Freak cars, with verses from Revelation all over and a loudspeaker blaring that everyone had to come to Jesus, now. Suddenly I had the worst panic attack I have ever had. The room was spinning and was pouring sweat. I went into the bathroom and threw up. For some strange reason, I felt like that warning was meant for me.
Everything in my life changed at that moment. Over the next few weeks I recited the Jesus Prayer a hundred times, but never felt any different so felt it didn’t “take.” I was frantic. I tried unsuccessfully to witness to my parents. I could not look into a room without wondering who was saved and who was not. I began reading every book I could on Christianity, trying to find the “right” denomination, but that just confused me more. I was overloaded with conflicting dogma.
This anxiety and angst became a phobia that lasted for years. I never told anyone what I was going through. Among my greatest regrets in life is distancing myself from my mother when she had cancer because she wasn’t “saved.”
I wanted very much to be married, and I knew I had to marry a Christian man; but had a quandary: I DIDN’T LIKE THE COMPANY OF CHRISTIANS. In fact, as a self-proclaimed socialist, I preferred the company of agnostics and atheists. This put me into a situation where I was afraid to get intimate with anyone. The isolation was unbearable.
Over the years I “tried on” Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and even Quakerism. Nothing “fit.” The liberal churches, I suspected of false theology. The conservative ones made me sick with their political rhetoric and their refusal to look at contradictions and absurdities in their Bible.
Finally, after years of prayers, God brought me an answer.
What we did to him was so sick, so unfathomable, that I will never, ever forgive myself. In my early 30s, I met my husband, Alex. He was an Eastern Orthodox priest, “on leave” after a divorce. I had never heard of Orthodox Christianity before, but I liked what I heard: A mystical or symbolic interpretation of scripture; no Substitutionary Atonement; no literal burning hell, and open to the possibility of people of other religions entering heaven. It seemed to be all the good stuff minus the bad stuff, and the fact that it was the “original church” in history gave it a lot of credibility.
Alex also seemed like the right kind of Christian for me. Raised in a communal atmosphere in Berkely, he was still a hippie with hair down to his waist, a love for film and rock n’ roll, and liberal political views. He was a recovering drug addict who credited God for his sobriety, and had made his way out of a shockingly violent childhood – but he had become a pastoral counselor. He was a gentle father to his 5-year-old son, and was more intelligent than anyone I had ever met. He was deeply involved in peace issues, and very inclusive as to who would go to heaven.
I recognized a gift from God when I saw one.
But I didn’t know enough about Orthodoxy to see the red flags. He’d been ordained in a non-canonical “independent” Orthodox church in Queens that mixed Kabballah and Theosophy in with its Orthodox theology. (I found out many years later that the Bishop who had founded it – and who Alex practically worshipped – had served time twice for embezzlement and once for mail fraud).
We were engaged and moved in together a month after we met. He resisted birth control on the grounds that “I trust God about things like that.” He also trusted God so much he didn’t wear a seatbelt, and was staunchly opposed to any sort of significant savings, calling a nest egg “greedy and materialistic” and reminding me of the sparrows. He was an artist and didn’t have a “real” job, but promised to get one before we were married. He finally did get a job in IT, and our two jobs helped us to maintain a roof over our heads.
Alex was a study in contradictions. He read the Bible every day, taking copious notes. Our apartment was covered with iconography and he self-published several books on Orthodoxy. He praised God constantly, never taking praise for himself but attributing all to God. To this day I have no doubt that he really DID believe; he wasn’t faking it. But once we returned from our wedding in Queens, more problems came up.
Now that he was married, he was reinstated to the priesthood. Suddenly I was a priest’s wife, something I hadn’t anticipated. About the same time he came down with a severe illness that kept him bedridden for two weeks, so he lost his job in IT. He was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but refused to try to get disability because he wanted to serve as a (volunteer) priest for a small congregation and he knew that would interfere with getting the benefit. We were back to my small salary, and I was getting scared.
His 5-year-old son was illegitimate, having been conceived during the process of his divorce. Just after our wedding, a 2-year-old illegitimate son popped up; we had to go to court to allow his stepfather to adopt him. I wept uncontrollably during the hearing; Alex seemed to feel nothing. I asked him, “How many more kids are out there?” He shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Probably several.”
He had already informed me that I was fourth on his priority list, after God, the Church, and his son. This was true. Once, when my stepson slammed the door and a large wooden icon fell and cracked me on the head, I swore, and he flew into a rage because I’d sworn in front of the icon. He kissed it – the icon, not my head.
We became the leaders of a congregation, but with a caveat – no one could know of his former divorce or his son’s illegitimacy. So began a life of lies where I had to subtly pretend that my stepson was my own (very difficult to do when the church women ask you about his birth or your child’s earliest years), and my stepson had to stay with the program and not mention his real mom or half-sister. He’s 22 now, and I cry as I write this. What we did to him was so sick, so unfathomable, that I will never, ever forgive myself.
I began to feel more and more isolated, especially since the two congregations we eventually led were immigrants, most of whom did not speak English. I didn’t have anyone to confess my lies to.
As it turned out, two of his exes had attempted or committed suicide. I never thought about the statistics of that – Alex explained they were both “crazy.” But as time went on, he displayed more and more of his temper. He would fly into unbelievable rages – often I didn’t know what he was upset about – and scream and swear at me. He was a very large man, and I would sit on the floor as he towered over me, yelled so the neighbors could hear (they told me!), hands in fists, veins poking out of his neck. Co-workers complained to my HR department about the times he dropped me off at work, screaming hysterically at me.
These weren’t “arguments” because I was afraid to reciprocate. Instead, I would go into another room and burn myself. I’d never self-harmed before, but I had nowhere to put my emotions.
He never actually “hit” me, although he did cause two situations which left me bruised. Anyway, the yelling was worse, because for days afterward, I was physically sore as if he had. But unlike most abusive men, he never once said “I’m sorry.” He may have asked God for forgiveness, but not me.
For some years, I believed I was happy – because I felt every incident was isolated and would never recur. Our family did, in fact, have wonderful times together, but it was like taking a walk though a lovely meadow and having to avoid the landmines. Later I became unhappy, but chose to bear my burden because I didn’t want to break up the church. He had threatened me several times with a "Biblical marriage" in which he would make all decisions and I would submit, but it was that way anyway.
Yet the idea of divorce was completely foreign to me. God had brought me this man and I was going to make it work somehow. When I was feeling down he sent me to a weekend retreat at a monastery nearby with a sweet and kind bishop we both loved. This bishop was later defrocked for sexual assault.
Things finally came to a head when my company declared bankruptcy and it looked like I would be laid off shortly. I began to hint that he might look into getting another part-time job (he was working for pay one day a week as a hospital chaplain). He exploded that he couldn’t do that and the church, and the church was his priority. He screamed at me to get a job at McDonald’s, when I was already working 50 to 60 hours a week. “YOU DON’T TRUST GOD,” he shrieked.
I began to get sicker and sicker, mentally and physically. Between jaw problems and anxiety, I lost almost 30 pounds and was constantly depressed and anxious. The doctors simply put me on more and more medication. But the more depressed I got, the more angry Alex got, calling me a “selfish bitch.” He would scream and swear at me the whole way to church, then get out of the car and become “The Gentle Priest.” It was as if he was two people. Church members often told me how fortunate I was to be married to such a Godly man.
Like the Ingrid Bergman character in “Gaslight,” my husband kept trying to convince me that I was crazy, and I came to believe it. He made me flush my meds down the toilet because I was “depending on medication instead of God,” throwing me into SSRI withdrawal. At one point he attempted to exorcise the demons out of me. One minute I was praising God, a moment later the fears came back again. “You TOOK the demons back,” he screamed. “You WANT to be sick.”
By that time I was in a semi-psychotic state. And one day I was greatly relieved and calmed to hear God’s voice say, “You can come home.” I had taken to sleeping on the floor in front of the altar, and when Alex came in I happily informed him. He flew into a rage. “What will that do to the CHURCH? You will go to HELL if you do this. But if it’s what you want, fine. What should I get you – a gun or a rope!?”
The next morning I made a serious attempt – not a gesture, not to get attention. I was 100% positive that I would die and life would be better for everyone. I wrote a suicide note to the church, telling them what a good man my husband was and why they should stay in his congregation. It was all my fault, I said. Blame me.
Somehow, I survived. One doctor said he had never had a patient survive what I had done. They all expected me to be happy that I was alive. I was not. I was supposed to stay in the ward for two weeks. Alex called two days after, demanding I come home, and telling me what to say to the doctors in order to get out. It worked.
The next three years were more of the same, except that now when we argued he would pull the suicide card. And his violent behavior kept escalating. Out of curiosity I wrote the city for his police records and discovered that right about the time he’d met me, he’d been arrested and gone to court for hitting his mother.
To be 100% fair, it was two Orthodox friends (from another church) and an Evangelical counselor who told me I HAD to leave. But I was still brainwashed with my own personal religion. I kept promising them things would get better. They HAD to. I was doing this for God.
One night in our 16th year, I came home late from work, as I was dealing with my most time-consuming project of the year. He was waiting for me. When I came in, he said, “So, I suppose you were out screwing someone else.” There was something new in his eyes, something I’d never seen before. The next morning I got up, went to work and never came home.
Ironically, I still have to support him financially after the divorce. And if the State has a problem with the checks, which it sometimes does, he’s very quick to email me and demand the money (what happened to the sparrows?). MY home has been foreclosed, I’ve lost half my savings, I’ve declared bankruptcy and I have no idea where my stepson is. My father died about the same time. I was diagnosed with PTSD from the abuse. I had lost everything. Everything. I felt like a fool. Still do.
Over the next six months or so, the “feeling” I had, which I had called God, faded and faded. I knew God was gone completely when my father died. I was holding his hand as he passed away, and I felt noting – no compulsion to pray, no concerns about whether he’d gone to heaven or hell, no feeling that his spirit was anywhere at all. The chaplain came by and asked if he could be of any assistance. I said no – unthinkable in the past.
I never, never dreamed I would stop believing in God. For most of my life, even while I wrestled with dogma, God was the one thing I believed to be true. “I believe God exists because I exist,” I would say. I prayed every night before bed and throughout the day as well.
But I can’t imagine the opportunities I missed, the hell I endured, in his name. If there is a god who loves me, he has a funny way of showing it. People will say “I never really believed,” but if I didn’t, why would I have gone through all of that? I defy anyone to go through what I’ve been through and not recognize that God is either evil or a myth.
We’re on our own, and I wish I had known that 30 years ago. I truly feel I wasted my entire life in God’s name.